It's hard to believe I've been in Lebanon for a week already, harder still to think of leaving on Saturday. I've got an evening flight to Cyprus bought and paid for, though, so I'll be gone all too soon.
What have I been doing in Lebanon? I've spent time catching up on the past nine years with an old friend, and getting acquainted with his three children. I wrote a short article on pilgrimage for a diocesan publication, which my friend then translated into Arabic. I've been to church every day except for the day I arrived, and I'd have made it to the service that evening if I had walked instead of flagging a cab. A few days ago I went shopping and replaced my shoes. The duct tape repair job not only looked funny, it probably wouldn't have survived long on the rough trail that is waiting for me in the Holy Land. After 2000 kms, they have certainly been a good investment! I'll wait to discard them just in case my new shoes give me blisters. And, as I've mentioned previously, I've been eating a lot and walking very little.
One of the advantages of being in a country with a long tradition of Orthodox Christianity is that there is no difficulty finding good wholesome food during fasting periods. After months of processed food, I am finally eating my veggies. And legumes, and fresh fruit, and of course, hummus and khibz. The Feast of the Annunciation is a national holiday in Lebanon, so after Liturgy on Wednesday we feasted on fish, fish, and more fish. I had decided to keep fish in my diet for the Nativity Fast while walking in Italy, but I've been trying to keep a stricter fast for Great Lent. (That's probably one of the reasons I found the walk along the Mediterranean coast in Turkey so challenging, even with dairy.)
It's not only the Lebanese who have been wining and dining me. On Thursday, I finally paid a visit to my old stomping grounds at the St John of Damascus Institute of Theology and the University of Balamand. The bus ride north took an hour and twenty minutes and cost the equivalent of US $2. (The ride back south later that night took fifty minutes. Traffic congestion isn't an exclusively North American problem.) I had a chance to see Fr. Bassam, who had been a fellow parishioner in Canada before he returned to Lebanon. I also spent several delightful hours as the guest of Philip and Joanna. They are British expats who had begun teaching at the university the year I was in Lebanon, and thanks to Flickr I have maintained contact with them. When Philip brought me home after Great Compline, Joanna set a place for me at the table. I was genuinely surprised when I realised how late it was At the end of the evening. They gave me a ride down to the highway and waited with me until a bus arrived. (The name Balamand is likely a corruption of "belle mont," which is what Frankish crusaders dubbed the hill. At 330 m, it's not particularly tall, but it is a very stiff climb up from sea level. I was glad to be spared the walk down in the dark.)
I'm still not sure how I'll be getting from Cyprus to Israel. The two ferry companies that sail out of the port of Limassol haven't updated their websites in quite some time. One of them indicates that service to Haifa ended in 2006, while it looks like the other doesn't start operating passenger ferries until May. I've emailed both companies, and am awaiting a reply. (One of them forwarded my mail to another company, so there's still some hope.) I'm hoping to get a ferry to Haifa, and then follow the Israel National Trail south to Jerusalem. It would be nice to get away from road walking for the last week of my pilgrimage, and with that in mind I bought a 2 litre water pouch to supplement my water bottle. One disadvantage of hiking trails is that they tend not to have shops selling cold drinks along the way.
Another possibility for travelling to Israel is a ferry to Ashdod. The city looks to be about 30 kms from Jerusalem, which means I'd be arriving a week earlier than I'd planned unless I do what a few others have done and catch a bus north to Haifa and begin walking from there. While I've cut about a thousand kilometres from my walk by bus and train, it is counterintuitive to go out of my way just to follow a particular route. Still, I've got these nice new hiking shoes, so I may do just that.
The simplest way forward would be to fly from Larnaca (Cyprus) to Tel Aviv and then walk to Jerusalem from there. That would mean I wouldn't have any walking in Cyprus (the sea port is about 70 kms from the airport), but at least I'd experience some of the Israel National Trail without making an unnecessary detour by bus. It would also mean I wouldn't miss any of Holy Week. If I haven't heard from a ferry company by Sunday, this is likely what I'll do.